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U-M Ross Business + Impact
U-M Ross Business + Impact
Map Your U-M Journey


At UM or in India, Ross Students are Creating Community and Opportunity for People with Disabilities

Kayla Rothstein with her DEI Award in April 2024.

The staff and students of Michigan Ross have been working to include the needs of people of the disabled and neurodivergent communities in business’ DEI lens, and this work is being recognized. The Business Leaders for Diverse Abilities Club won awards for Michigan Ross Club of the Year in 2023 and DEI in Action in 2023 and 2024, and just this past month, BBA Kayla Rothstein received a Ross DEI Award for her thesis on the hiring and keys to success for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, specifically in India.  This kind of recognition marks a new trend toward building community, awareness, and advocacy within the world of business for people with disabilities, chronic illness, and neurodivergence.

Both prize winners at Ross recognize that an important first step in advocacy is for people to rethink their assumptions of what a disability looks like. Ramps and ADA accessibility make up key areas of attention, but barriers to technologies, recognition of invisible disabilities, and considerations around inclusive language are also important. Additionally, a business school like Ross can study barriers to joining the workforce as well as the unique challenges of navigating the business world.

A study from Access to Success reported that 15% of the world’s population, or one billion people, experience some form of disability, yet just 7% of business leaders identify as having a disability. At business schools, over 60% of respondents experienced difficulties with casual social interactions due to social anxiety and exhaustion from onerous program demands, among a variety of other reasons. Furthermore, after college, 40% of respondents reported being underemployed or involuntarily unemployed. These kinds of numbers convinced the first president of the Business Leaders for Diverse Abilities Club, Alex Perez-Garcia of the need for the club at Ross.

Meanwhile, Kayla Rothstein’s award-winning thesis utilized a qualitative, inductive study to understand the strategies for success and barriers to entry for people with disabilities when navigating the job market in India. Rothstein said, “While people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of the population in developing countries, they constitute a remarkably low percentage of the workforce. In India, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are largely unemployed despite recent national legislation aimed to increase the employment of people with IDD and rising interest in DEI and ESG.”

A government mandate can only help the employability of IDD people in a country with a long history of caste, and companies can aid in success rates by making sure job postings are available in an accessible format and that job descriptions truly reflect the required skills needed for the job.  Another indicator of success that caught Rothstein’s attention was when extended families support life skill development — then people with IDD have exponential success in finding work. 

Multigenerational homes in India are common (30% in urban areas and 60% in rural areas). Although this has many positive implications for people with IDD, such as allowing more family members to offer support, ensuring life security, and reducing the need for government assistance (e.g. government-funded group homes), Rothstein reports, “life skills learned in vocational and primary schools are not encouraged at home due to reliance and help from the abundance of family members and household staff.” Employment experts say that the skills developed in job training programs are not emphasized and sometimes counteracted at home, delaying the development of skills needed for employment.  However, a different set of skills are transferable to the workplace, as a research participant reported, “learning how to communicate with your driver” and “being comfortable with short-term staff,”  advance communication and sociability.

Peer-to-peer social support is also an important part of the Business Leaders for Diverse Abilities (BLDA) Club’s mandate. The club has collaborated with other clubs and organizations across the university for fireside chats about experiences with disabilities, as well as wellness week initiatives that have helped them reach students across Ross and the university at large.  BLDA’s President Francesca Colombo says “This coming year, I hope to implement a buddy program for new students, host at least one larger event with professional development and recruiting, and raise awareness of BLDA as well as university-wide disability events and initiatives. 

Kayla Rothstein greets children in India during her research project.

Community is important in supporting the social and financial well-being of people with IDD. Kayla Rothstein discovered that families in urban India often join support groups to connect family members with IDD with social opportunities, resources, and employment opportunities. Meanwhile, a nonprofit leader connected to rural communities exclaimed that the same support groups do not exist there, likely because of the stigma still held about people with disabilities, especially in traditional families. Additionally, during Rothstein’s research, when prompted on why the interviewee with disabilities was motivated to get a job, aside from financial means, several participants shared that they wanted to “make friends” or “meet people”. Thus, strong networks are essential to support people with disabilities and their families in India. This is no doubt true throughout the world.

Rothstein is optimistic about how the disability movement in India can be modeled after successful poverty solution strategies. An expert interview said that the “next big thing is to connect people with disabilities in rural communities to SHGs.” An SHG is usually a community of 10-12 women from similar socio-economic backgrounds who pool their financial resources to take up joint economic activities or lend money at a reasonable interest rate to members starting small businesses. “The research participants had a wide variety of talents — both professionally and recreationally — such as photography,” said Rothstein, “SHGs, or similar models, have great potential for people with disabilities to be entrepreneurs and use their skills in new or existing networks.”

From the support community BLDA Club provides at Ross to the World Bank plans for SHG in developing countries, peer-to-peer support and allyship remain an important facet of life for people with IDD and other disabilities—one connection at a time.